by Cherie Hunter Day
First published in Northwest Literary Forum, Autumn 1995, pages 37–39. Some minor edits have been made here. This essay first introduced the idea of doing rengay solo instead of with one or more partners.
ren´•gay´ n. a collaborative six-stanza linked thematic poem written by two or three poets using alternating three-line and two-line haiku or haiku-like stanzas in a regular pattern. [Aug. 9, 1992, Amer. Garry Gay, San Francisco haiku poet.]
My introduction to rengay was at a workshop in Sunnyvale, California, on April 17, 1994. At the workshop Garry Gay, Michael Dylan Welch, and John Thompson provided insights into the rengay form. After a short discussion about the importance of theme and developing the unity of a piece, we broke up into pairs for writing two-person rengay. My partner and I talked for a few minutes about possible subjects for our rengay, and then selected a subject we were both very familiar with. Taking turns, each of us offered one or two possible stanzas and discussed how each stanza worked in the context of the rengay. There was a fair amount of discussion and editing on both our parts. Unlike my usual approach to writing haiku, I purposely sought certain images to incorporate into the rengay. I took cues from my surroundings as well as from my past experiences. I found the overall effect of writing rengay in this way like watching sunlight shimmering on the surface of a lake or sea, each stanza being a separate fragment of light.
This was my first experience of writing collaboratively with another poet. Because of my background in haiku, I was comfortable with putting together the individual stanzas, but how the stanzas worked together was new to me. The building up of separate pieces into a whole happened spontaneously, and this element of surprise was delightful. As we shared the fruit of our labor during the course of the afternoon, I was impressed at the power of these rengay. They were as different as the people who wrote them. After the workshop I was eager to try the rengay form again with other haiku poets.
Shortly after the workshop, I began writing rengay through the mail. In a series of letters, my partners and I exchanged and linked stanzas. The process was slightly different than writing in person. My partners’ stanzas elicited a flood of associations, sensations, and memories that became a focus of reflection or meditation for me. Because of the physical distance between us, the exchange of stanzas often took weeks or months instead of minutes. As a result, some immediacy was lost, but more subtle links were established between stanzas. The interplay of the stanzas pointed to a deeper dialog and intimacy.
Continuing with my light metaphor, sunlight no longer dances on the surface but penetrates deeper into the water. I have experienced the growth of wonderful friendships writing long-distance rengay. For me, the rengay form generates a creative process that extends beyond the piece of poetry that is produced.
After collaborating on a number of landscape pieces, such as rengay written about a sandy beach and a salt marsh, I was interested in starting an urban rengay. I had a partner in mind and started in my usual way to create an opening stanza. I penned a number of haiku, looking for the qualities of an opening stanza. Some rengay writers feel that the initial stanza is more difficult to write, because it isn’t written in response to another stanza. The opening stanza announces a theme or mood that invites an answer: a call and response. I worked with several stanzas and could not separate one out from the others. They worked so well together that I arranged them in the two-person rengay form and continued writing until I had six stanzas. When I was done, I was pleased with the results [see “Night Rain”]. What should I call this experiment? I was aware of solo renga, so why not solo rengay?
Solo rengay is not collaborative in the usual sense of two poets writing emotions and memories. I can move freely back and forth to experience these together in a dialog, but it could be viewed as a dialog of self. William James describes the self as bipolar, as both an “I am” who is subjective and agent, and a “me” who is objective or known. I can be conscious of my surroundings, my body, my social roles, even follow my rational thinking processes, emotions, and memories—“different selves,” if you will. These voices flow quite naturally out of my experience and reflection on that experience.
Given the multidimensional aspect of the self, the internal dialog can conjure up the richness and variety of images that we have seen in two-person rengay. For example, the subject matter in my first solo rengay came from recollections of a bus station that I traveled through for many years. Because the images surfaced in a reflective manner, the overall tone was similar to the two-person rengay written through the mail.
In contrast, my second solo rengay, “Rope Tricks,” was written about the St. Paul Rodeo on the Fourth of July. I went to the rodeo with the intention of creating a solo rengay. While I sat in the bleachers, I tried to take notes but found it awkward to watch and record simultaneously. At home later that evening and during the next day, I wrote and arranged the stanzas. “Rope Tricks” relates various aspects of a single event, and I wrote the stanzas soon after my initial experience, giving this solo rengay more of a light-hearted or playful tone and the immediacy of a two-person rengay written on the spot. There were so many images, in fact, that I had a hard time confining myself to six stanzas. Perhaps there is a double rengay out there.
I can only speculate at this point what might be the next step for experimentation. Solo rengay is a natural step in a continuum of the rengay form. I enjoy the spontaneity of two-person rengay composed on the spot, the reflective rengay through the mail, and the challenge of solo rengay. It is exciting to push and pull, to stretch every aspect of the form. We build things up, we take things apart, we find out who we are.